The Buddhists tell the story of a man fleeing from a tiger who went plunging over a cliff and saved himself only by catching hold of a small strawberry plant growing between the rocks of the precipice. Caught between the tiger above and the gorge below, the man clung to the bush with one hand–thought for a moment–and with the other hand picked the most luscious strawberry he had ever eaten in his entire life.
The Gift of Years, Sister Joan Chittister
It feels odd sometimes to write about aging. I’m 35, which while past the point of being young, can hardly be considered old. I know that I lack the perspective that additional years will bring, and I while I occasionally read articles about how I will feel and what I will learn with each coming decade, I have a very difficult time internalizing and applying that information to my present.
We live in a society in which aging has drawbacks, and in many ways, I am afraid of the coming years. I’m cognizant that in the eyes of some my value goes down as the lines on my face grow more pronounced. Outside of vanity, my body, though strong, has become much more susceptible to pain and injury than it was when I was younger. And I’m very much aware of the challenges I will face as my parents grow old and require more hands-on care. As we age, it becomes harder to recover from a job loss or a financial setback, harder to reinvent ourselves. It seems that a fear of aging is reasonable.
And that’s precisely why we need older people—to teach us to live the entirety of our lives to our fullest. Watching another person age with joy and courage and love gives me so much inspiration. It’s really through the examples of those further in their journey from whom I am learning to embrace life, live in the present and savor every moment I have.
Coming closer to the end of life, forces people to be more intentional in choosing what is important. As the tiger and the gorge close in, we must make a conscious effort to put them aside and savor the strawberry. To me, it seems harder to live and love without an expectation of a future. But older people give me many examples: my grandma and great-aunts, who keep smiling and gossiping as they share their room in a nursing home together; a family friend who despite advanced Parkinson’s prepared legal documents pro bono on behalf of his nurse; the woman in her nineties who knits hundreds of gifts every year for those around her. These people are truly living fearlessly in the present and teaching others to do the same.
Returned Peace Corps Volunteers often say that they received more than they gave during their time working in the developing world. I sometimes think of my work similarly. I am able to make a contribution to the lives of vulnerable older adults. But through my experiences working with older people, I’m also gaining perspective on what really matters and how to live with courage and cherish the beauty that I will find throughout all of my time in this world.